Whether you’ve already experienced it or not, all of us will walk through some form of grief in our lifetimes. That grief can take many different forms, whether through the death of a loved one, the loss of a dream, or recognizing unmet needs from the past. You may have shown signs with the five stages of grief outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (shock, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance), or you may have taken your own personal path through grief.
Perhaps you’ve been surrounded with loved ones or friends during your grieving period because it has been public. This often happens in cases such as the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a divorce or separation.
But for others, grief comes when invisible losses happen. The private nature of these experiences makes their importance harder to acknowledge. This might include discovering a spouse or family member’s addiction, wrestling through infertility, or experiencing rejection or abandonment in relationships.
Some areas of loss may seem small in comparison to greater tragedies and pain that are occurring in the world. Know that if this pain is having an impact on you, it matters. You might be uncovering stories of unmet needs from childhood in therapy, dealing with a chronic or major illness, experiencing generalized anxiety, or seeing the effects of aging.
The Process of Grief
Whether you’re dealing with visible or invisible grief, the process of grieving takes time, attention, and care.
We tend to minimize our own experience of grief in order to carry on with daily life. As others who are uncomfortable with grief urge us to move forward, we might rush past the experience of sadness in an attempt to “get over it.” We can be fearful of uncovering grief because we worry that once we feel it, we won’t ever be able to stop. Facing grief over the loss of a loved one can lead to potential existential fears, such as anxiety about our own death.
Alternatively, we can stay stuck in our grief despite years passing and wish we could move forward through it. This often happens with we feel stalled out or stuck in the same place years after the loss. Usually this indicates that there is a certain layer of grief that hasn’t yet been accessed because of the additional pain it brings up.
How to Grieve Well
ADDRESS THE ASSUMPTIONS YOU HAVE ABOUT GRIEF.
Do you assume once you start crying, you won’t be able to stop? Are you fearful of the judgment of others who don’t understand?
Write a list of all the thoughts that immediately come to mind when you think about grief, good or bad. Review your list and look for cognitive distortions or faulty assumptions. Notice how they are leading you to feel anxiety. Anxiety leads us to see only the worst-case scenario, rather than realistic possibilities. Consider also what the best-case scenario might be of allowing yourself to grieve.
If you have questions you can’t answer, educate yourself on the grieving process. Learn about the stages of grief. Recognize that they are not linear: you can jump forward and backward through the stages. Remind yourself that periods of intense grief will not last forever – they will get better over time. Research online or read books about grief. Here are some resources to get you started:
David Kessler’s website on grief
The Dougy Center for resources for death of loved ones
University of Michigan’s list of resources, which includes local support
The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman
On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief by David Kessler
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
NOTICE ANY TENDENCIES TO SHY AWAY FROM THE GRIEVING PROCESS.
These tendencies can be overt, like avoidance of thinking about the loss or refusing to grieve. Or they can be more hidden, like resistance to sitting down and reading a book about grief or leaving information out when talking with a friend.
Instead of getting down on yourself for experiencing these, instead ask yourself why they happen. They likely came about as a coping strategy to survive the pain of the loss. Honor what you did to survive. Then ask yourself what they’re protecting you from: what are you avoiding? What fears do you have about addressing grief? What emotions come up when you think about it?
BEFRIEND THE EMOTIONS THAT COME WITH GRIEF.
Seek to learn how to sit with uncomfortable emotions. This might involve getting out a journal and writing or getting together with a friend who can help you verbally process what you’re going through. Prayer can be a helpful way to sit in challenging emotions, particularly if you couple it with the experience of reading Psalms of lament or writing your own. These psalms are used to grieve the pain or suffering that exists in the world and can be used as a guide to help you express your own sorrow.
Set yourself a specific time on a regular basis to sit down and check in with your emotions. It could be a daily, weekly, or monthly practice, depending on how intense your grief feels. Try a tool like an emotions journal. Use mindfulness strategies to help you connect to the experience of the present moment both before and after you enter into this space of active grieving.
TALK ABOUT YOUR GRIEF WITH SOMEONE ELSE.
Sometimes, simply naming an emotion or talking about an experience of grief can provide respite from the pain. Reach out to safe friends or family members who are willing to sit with you in your grief.
If you don’t feel able to share in your current relationships, look for a grief support group at your local church, hospital, community center, or therapist’s office. If you’re dealing with grief in the context of addiction, seek out a 12 Step group specific for your concern.
CONSIDER WHAT YOU MIGHT BE LEARNING.
Be curious about what your grief is teaching you over time. If you’ve journaled, go back over old notes. If you spoke with a trusted friend or therapist, ask if they’ve seen any themes in what you’ve been sharing.
These learnings can help you approach your life with a different mindset. You may consider changes you’d like to make in life or people you’d like to spend more time with as a result of this process. Let this new knowledge and understanding affect your behaviors and choices to better reflect your values.
FIND MEANING IN THE GRIEF.
Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, addresses the importance of finding meaning in suffering and pain. Similarly, consider how this pain and loss has shaped you or changed your perspective. Psychologists call this concept post-traumatic growth, pointing out the benefits that come from opportunities for growth and change after surviving trauma or loss. Consider a vision for your future that includes these insights gained from the experience of grief.
by Elizabeth Jackson-Van Sickel